Now that the dust has settled following the initial wave of free agency, let’s assess the Patriots’ roster needs ahead of the NFL Draft.
New England has 11 picks, starting with No. 14 in the first round.
The four positions of need:
After parting ways with Jakobi Meyers and signing JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Patriots are still in need of a wide receiver — particularly for the long term. Only Smith-Schuster and Tyquan Thornton are under contract beyond the upcoming season.
The Patriots may have enough to get by in the short term, with Smith-Schuster as a slot receiver, Thornton as a speedy vertical threat, Kendrick Bourne as the dynamic playmaker he proved to be in 2021, and DeVante Parker as the go-to guy for contested catches.
The passing attack also will benefit from tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, as well as running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
The group’s success, though, hinges on a number of factors, including Smith-Schuster’s acclimation to the playbook, Thornton’s development, Bourne’s resurgence, and, of course, quarterback Mac Jones’s performance.
A traditional No. 1 receiver would immediately strengthen the offense, giving Jones a top-tier target as well as creating opportunities for others. As the decision regarding Jones’s fifth-year option looms, surrounding him with as much talent as possible could ease the evaluation process.
The Patriots have been linked to a few elite players via trade, but may have to turn to the draft. There are four prospects expected to go in the first round: Jordan Addison (USC), Quentin Johnston (TCU), Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Ohio State), and Zay Flowers (Boston College).
Similar to their situation at receiver, the Patriots may survive 2023 with their current group of offensive tackles but will certainly need to upgrade going forward.
After 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn’s tenure ended in disgruntlement and disappointment, the Patriots moved on to sign 34-year-old Riley Reiff to a one-year, $5 million deal. Reiff has plenty of NFL experience — he earned a starting role with each of his previous four teams — so it would not be surprising if he ends up playing opposite Trent Brown.
At the NFL’s annual meeting, coach Bill Belichick would not say whether Brown would return to his usual position at right tackle after switching spots with Wynn last year. Reiff has played primarily on the left side, though Belichick also stayed mum on his potential role.
Both Brown and Reiff are set to become unrestricted free agents after the season, so the Patriots would be prudent to draft at least one starting-caliber tackle. They will have a few options within range at No. 14: Paris Johnson Jr. (Ohio State), Peter Skoronski (Northwestern), and Broderick Jones (Georgia).
The Patriots also signed Conor McDermott, Yodny Cajuste, and Calvin Anderson this offseason, but all three are backups. McDermott and Anderson are under contract through 2024, while Cajuste is tendered on a one-year deal.
Tight end is another position where the Patriots would be wise to draft this year in preparation for the future. Gesicki, who signed a one-year deal in free agency, and Henry are both set to become free agents after the upcoming season, leaving practice squadder Matt Sokol as the only tight end under contract for 2024.
This draft is particularly deep for tight ends, with double-digit players expected to go in the first three rounds. The Patriots are better off using No. 14 on a receiver or offensive tackle, but it would not be surprising if they take a tight end on Day 2.
Devin McCourty’s decision to retire leaves a massive void in the secondary.
“I don’t think you’re going to replace Devin McCourty with one player,” Belichick said.
The Patriots brought back all of their defensive free agents other than McCourty, so the unit should be in good shape following last season’s impressive performance. But filling McCourty’s role is no easy task, given the breadth of his responsibilities. Belichick has likened McCourty to an on-field coach because of his pre-snap involvement with calls and substitutions.
Kyler Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jabrill Peppers will all help in replacing McCourty, as will cornerback Jalen Mills, who has experience at safety.
Only one safety, Brian Branch (Alabama), is considered a surefire first-rounder, so waiting until Day 2 or the early part of Day 3 would make sense for the Patriots given their other needs.